Archive for October, 2005

Giving

After yet another natural disaster, more of our fellow citizens are suffering, this time in Southeast Asia (Amardeep provides links to some of the eyewitness testimony available on the BBC website). As Caleb, AKMA and many others remind us, it is our duty now to give what we can and mourn with the grieving. One place where you can give is the Oxfam Global Emergencies Fund. You can also donate to the Red Cross.

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Lost Films Found

I’ve been reading Sylvaine Agacinski’s fascinating book, Time Passing, today. TP touches on many of the questions that I’ll be addressing in my time-travel cinema book, particularly the relationship between mechanical reproduction (photography and cinema) and memory. In one particular passage, Agacinski writes about the way in which a photograph creates an “illusion of contemporaneity” between the observer and the photographed object, which results in “confusing their respective times” (92). She uses metaphors of ghosts and haunting, which inevitably reminded me of my media horror essay (currently under revision). But more importantly, her comments recalled for me one of the first known time-travel films, Berkeley Square (Frank Lloyd, 1933), a film that has haunted my project since it was a dissertation. I’d been led to believe that there were no copies of the film available, but thanks to an IMDB reviewer, I’ve discovered that isn’t the case (and if everything goes as planned I’ll have a copy in a few days).

Arne Andersen, the IMDB reviewer, also has a website worth checking out, the Lost Film Files, where Andersen lists lost films from the years 1925-1929 in the hopes of assisting researches in knwoing what’s available and what has been lost. It’s a useful resource, especially given the questions of archivability that always seem to haunt the cinematic medium.

Hoping to have more to say about Time Passing later this week. …

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What is Independent Cinema?

As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about the concept of independent cinema this weekend. This question informs the paper I’ll be delivering at the MLA conference in December. In my paper, which starts from The Jacket director John Maybury’s critical comments about the Hollywood film industry. Maybury, who wasn’t shy about criticizing powerful industry figures, describes The Jacket both in terms of the European art cinema and in terms of its “subtextual” treatment of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In the paper, I’ll be exploring the film’s allusions to and reliance upon this “European art cinema” tradition, but I want to argue as well that the film’s ostensible status as an “indpendent” also needs to be explored (the film was produced by Warner Independents).

So, here’s my question: What constitutes an independent film? I’ve been reading Chris Holmlund and Justin Wyatt’s fine collection of essays, Contemporary American Independent Film: From the Margins to the Mainstream, and I’m still not convinced that there is an easy answer here. The most pessimistic answer is that “indie” is a mere marketing label cynically deployed by the major studios to attract hip, usually urban, audiences. In this regard, stylistic flourishes–handheld camera, intimate character studies, references to international art cinema, or films featuring indie auteurs (Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, or stars such as Parker Posey)–might make an idnie aesthetic recognizable. In this context, institutions such as IFP’s “Independent Spirit Awards,” which reward films for following a “spirit” of independence allow relatively major films, such as Alexander Payne’s Election to qualify as “independent.”

Such a definition, however, would render the term virtually useless as a critical tool, other than to read indie as ideological. To be sure, this isn’t an unimportant task, but given the cultural relevance associated with “indie” as a concept, the cynical reading isn’t entirely satisfying.

The “industrial” definition of independent is crucial in my reading, but that is now fairly clouded. Holmlund argues in her introduction to her book (see also Chuck Kleinhans), that independent cinema is a “relational term,” by which she means that indies range from no-budget (under $100,000) through to “tweeners” ($10-30 million) and beyond. If “independent” is taken to imply films that were not financed by a major studio, then many big budget films–arguably including Gangs of New York and Chicago–qualify. With many (or all) of the major studios now operating “independent” houses, the term again loses its flavor. I’d add here that “independent” in this ocntext is complicated along production and distribution axes as well (a film might be made “indepedently” but distributed by a studio).

It’s tempting to reclaim “independent,” either as a politically opposiional term (as Patricia Zimmermann does in States of Emergency) or as a filmmaking practice completely divorced from the media congolmerates (many political docs distributed online–from the right and left–might qualify here). But film promotional and trade materials have made such a reclamation difficult to imagine. While the documentary genre is as vibrant as ever, the indie label doesn’t fit comfortably over some of the more oppositional films, at least in my reading.

I could write at greater length about some of the questions I’m still trying to sort out, but I just realized that it’s almost 2 AM (I do have Monday off, so I won’t be a total zombie tomorrow). I’ll conclude for now that I don’t mean to sound as if I’m disparaging the “indie” concept here. As Robert Eberwein argues in “Channeling Independence” (one of the essays in Holmlund and Wyatt), many independent films and filmmakers are doing important, progressive political work, and channels such as IFC and the Sundance Channel (I’d add HBO here) often support films that might otherwise never find an audience.

I’d love to hear from both filmmakers and film scholars (and anyone else, for that matter) who read my blog. What do you think of when you talk about “independent cinema?”

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War Feels Like War

The POV documentary War Feels Like War (IMDB) follows a group of independent journalists during the first few weeks of the Iraq War, with the film concluding soon after the coalition forces had taken Baghdad. Even at these very early stages, the journalists and US military have some vague premonitions of a developing resistance, powerfully illustrated by what appeared to be an anti-occupation rally in the streets of Baghdad. Like many POV docs, the film relies primarily on a verite-lite style (POV-verite?), with a fly-on-the-wall camera, no voice-over, and little explicit editorial comment, and while the film isn’t overtly pedantic about the role of independent journalists, it does demonstrate the risks and challenges these journalists are willing to face in order to get a good story. At the same time, War complicates this narrative by noting the degree to which journalists (embedded or independent) can invade the privacy of Iraqi citizens, many of whom are in mourning, who never asked to be filmed.

Perhaps teh most compelling figure in the documentary was Stephanie Sinclair, an award-winning photojournalist based out of Chicago when the film was made (her affiliation has changed several times since, and according to this POV follow-up, she is now living in Beirut). Sinclair’s photographs from the war are rather powerful, and the film itself is among the more powerful when it comes to showing the incredible violence of war. Several scenes depict civilian casualties, and one sequence depicts US soldiers treating a group of Iraqis rather roughly. In any case, the film is also highly effective in its portrayal of the seductiveness of covering war, the degree to which it provides many of the jouranlists with a sense of purpose, reminding me in many ways of Chris Hedges’ amazing book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

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Three Things

Thing One: Washington Cube is tackling what sounds like a daunting task, leaving at least one comment in every blog listed in the DC Blogs blogroll. “Cube” notes that the biggest challenge is not finding something to say to hundreds of different bloggers, but navigating the security measures that many blogs have had to enforce due to blogspam. I think Cube’s gesture is a really cool one, a productive way of starting conversations with dozens of bloggers throughout the city.

Thing Two: I keep trying to get out, but they pull me back in. The Braves have let me (well not only me) down yet again in the playoffs. Given their recent history, I can’t say that I’m suprised, but they seem to find annoying new ways of losing every year. This year’s version: an 18-inning marathon that consumed most of my day.

Thing Three: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been thinking about the category of the “independent film” today for my paper for MLA, specifically because the film I’ll be discussing is an “indepedent,” produced by Warner Indepedent Features. Long story short, while digging on IMDB this afternon (I wasn’t just watching the game), I came across one of Warner’s planned productions, Joshua Marston’s follow-up to Maria Full of Grace, The Iraqi Convoy Project, a feature film about “the lives of American truckers who, because of hard times at home, commit to transporting goods for U.S. contractors through the Iraqi war zone.” Could be an intriguing film.

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Midnight Madness

I’ve been thinking about the concept of independent cinema at some length this weekend (more on that later), and with those questions in mind, I went to a midnight screening of Russ Meyer’s wonderfully trashy cult classic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (BVD from now on), at the Landmark last night. I’d forgotten that 20th Century Fox produced the film, but Russ Meyer’s status as an “independent” director shaped my curiosity about the film (plus I thought it’d be fun to see it on the big screen).

I’m not sure I’d be able to say anything about BVD that hasn’t already been said, but as Roger Ebert, who co-wrote the film, notes, BVD is certainly a product of its era, one in which the studios were struggling financially and in which an X-rating was not necessarily seen as box office poison (as the NC-17 is often characterized today). It’s fascinating also as a satire of the late ’60s culture and the Hollywood conventions that had grown stale. Ebert’s comments also reminded me that the film appeared relatively soon after the Sharon Tate murders. But there’s also a degree to which Ebert’s comments (he describes it at one point as “an essay on our generic expectations”) seem motivated to clean up the film, to deny its trashy fun.

The midnight screening at the Landmark was a pretty groovy event, though, and I’d say that even if I didn’t win a free copy of Oldboy (now I can finally see it). In addition to a few freebies, the guys behind Heavy Metal Parking Lot (which will soon be released on DVD) introduced the film and screened one of their short films. I also learned that the E Street Cinema (Landmark) is applying for a liquor license, which will make the art house experience that much more enjoyable.

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Don’t Call it a Comeback, or Return of the (Ruxpin) Repressed

Sometimes the blogging gods smile upon you, my friends. I’d come to terms with the fact that today would be a slow blog day, and then I learned from The Reeler that the lovably creepy (or is that creepily lovable) talking bear from the 1980s, Teddy Ruxpin, is making his return to toy store shelves. That’s right, Teddy Ruxpin is back, and now he’s Wired for the Digital Age, with his old cassette tapes replaced by MP3s.

Ruxpin’s return from the far-off Land of Grundo will be accompanied by the DVD release of all 65 episodes of the Teddy Ruxpin TV show (I had no idea there was a TV show) due to the “unimaginable popularity” of this talking bear. As The Reeler points out, this “unimaginable popularity” derives from a petition containing a grand total of 650 signatures. I think that part of what creeps me out about this whole thing is that Teddy Ruxpin was one of the first toys that I clearly recognized as a cynical marketing gimmick when I was a kid, and the nostalgic return to the 1980s collectibles, and more crucially their digitization, conveys that cycle of obsolescence and recycling of past fashions far too vividly.

The Reeler’s news follows on the heels of an article I noticed yesterday but failed to blog. It seems that after the relative box office success of the Dukes of Hazzard film, 1980s TV shows and collectibles are fair game for summer nostalgia films, with Miami Vice, Dallas, and The Transformers among the planned adaptations. Can a Diff’rent Strokes or Facts of Life movie be far behind?

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The Constant Gardener

Based on a John Le Carré thriller, The Constant Gardener (IMDB) begins with the murder in Kenya of Tessa Quayle, wife of a mild-mannered British bureaucrat, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes, who always seems incapable of romance, unless it’s in flashback). Like many Le Carré novels, Gardener traces the outlines of a vast conspiracy, this one involving the globalized pharmaceutical industry, with the British government presumably complicit. It’s an interesting Hollywood debut for the director of City of God, and while I liked City better, both films engage with power and economic inequality in interesting ways without being overwhelmingly pedantic.

After we learn of Tessa’s death, the film flashes back to Justin and Tessa’s first meeting, when the reticent Justin delivers a lecture for one of his colleagues. The passionate Tessa disrupts the question and answer session, criticizing the British government for its participation in the war in Iraq. Defeated and mildly embarassed by her passion, Tessa collpases in tears, with Justin staying to console her. Without giving too much of the film away, much of the film–and our perception of Tessa–hinges on this scene. Is Tessa simply a passionate woman who falls for the gentle Justin? Or does she have ulterior motives in marrying him? Justin’s faith in their relationship wavers when it’s implied that she may be having an affair with an African doctor, Arnold, with whom she seems to be spending a lot of time.

I won’t reveal the specifics of the conspiracy, other than to say that in places I found the conspiracy perhaps a little too narrow and too contained by the end of the film, although Le Carre’s novel (and the film itself) are certainly critical of the practice of big pharmaceuticals in testing drugs they know to be dangerous, usually on the poor. While I’m not quite ready to follow Ebert’s lead and say that it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year, it’s certainly critical, almost to the point of cynicism, of the pharmaceutical industry’s exploitation of poverty in Africa.

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I’m Mad as Hell…

…and I’m gonna remake a 1970s movie. The Washington Post report that George Clooney is remaking the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet satire of sensationaized TV news, Network, has been making the rounds this week.

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica asks who’ll play Howard Beale. My first suggestion is Philip Baker Hall, who could pull off the weathered journalist/anchorman role pretty nicely. But the more important question in my opinion: Who gets the Faye Dunaway role?

Cline also points to the Jck Shafer Slate review of Clooney’s latest film, Good Night and Good Luck, which is about the “battle” between Edward R. Murrow and Joeseph McCarthy. I saw a trailer last night before a screening of The Constant Gardener, and the film looks gorgeous with its black and white cinematography and smoke-filled newsrooms. Shafer faults the film for being too generous to Murrow, but given McChris’s defense of the “golden age” in the comments to this entry, I’m willing to use that fictionalizing if it will serve as an effective critique of contemporary media practice.

Clooney’s first directorial efort, the Charlie Kaufman scripted Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, also turns its eye towards questions about media and celebrity. I’m starting to detect a theme here….

Update: I almost forgot the most important part. Clooney’s planning on doing his remake of Network on CBS–live.

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Wednesday Night Linkfest

Just a few late night (early morning?) links to help you procastinate right along with me:

Our tour of the Internet begins with a Boing Boing offering of a Vietnam-era anti-war ad with Jon Voight providing the voice-over (via Cinemocracy, who also notices that Miers supporters–or opponents–have been practicing their photoshop skills).

Next, it turns out Edward Jay Epstein was right (not that I ever doubted him). Hollywood is over. America’s Finest News Source has the scoop (thanks to Green Cine).

I’m not sure where I heard this story, but word on the street (by street, I mean the Internet Movie Database) is that Roberto Benigni is doing an Iraq War comedy about a “love-struck Italian poet [who] is stuck in Iraq at the onset of an American invasion.” The good news? Tom Waits is rumored to be participating in the film. The bad news? Roberto Benigni is particpating in the film. Maybe I’m being unfair, but this project sounds awfully crass to me.

This news probably deserves a separate entry, but it’s worth noting that poet laureate Ted Kooser will be giving a reading of his work on October 13 here in DC. The event is free and open to the public.

In other news, I’m teaching Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time in my senior seminar, which means I’ve been finding all sorts of fun ways to procrastinate on the Library of Congress American Memory project pages. I recommend the Edison films and sound recordings as well as the rest of the American Memory Collection.

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Blog Lecture at GWU

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber will be giving a lecture on blogs, “Welcome to the Blogosphere: How Blogs are Changing Politics,” next Tuesday (October 11), from 6pm-8pm. The venue is GWU’s Elliott School, Suite 602, 1957 E St. NW, Washington DC.

He adds that “There’ll be a reception afterwards. No RSVPs are necessary; CT readers are especially welcome.”

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Sadie Benning Pixelvision Films

Just a quick link to an online collection of Sadie Benning Pixelvision videos to show my students (via Video Data Bank). More later, maybe.

Update: The O’Reilly essay cited above provides a good overview for the technical specs of the Fisher Price Pixelvision camera Benning used for her short films.

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Passing Time/Time Passing

Here’s what I’ve been doing over the last few days when I haven’t been watching films at the DC Underground Film Festival.

First, I mentioned in passing last week that I would be leading a discussion in a graduate seminar at the University of Maryland on 1950s juvenile delinquency films, specifically Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. It’s the first time I’ve been invited to speak in a graduate seminar, so the invitation itself was very flattering, and I very much enjoyed the experience. Because of my love-hate relationship with movies about teachers, I found Blackboard Jungle particularly fun to discuss. If you haven’t seen the film in a while, it’s worth watching again, especially for the homoerotic subtext between the teacher (played by Glenn Ford) and Miller, one of the class leaders (Sidney Poitier). The film’s hysteria regarding delinquency may appear quaint now, particularly when Ford directly addresses the camera to warn his audience (fellow teachers? adult spectators? the teenage spectators who embraced the film?) about the perils of delinquency.

Yesterday, I came across the Internet Archive, a resource that brings together several amazing collections of films, videos, and other moving images. I knew about the Prelinger Archives, but many of these collections are new to me (via Atrios). Not sure I have much to add here. In a sense, this link is a self-reminder for me as I set up my next assignment in my junior seminar, which requires students to do “historical research” on a media artifact from before 1985. When my students write their research papers later this semester, it’ll be worth pointing them to these archives to provide them with some other materials that might help them to find and develop an interesting topic.

Finally, Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas is speaking here at CUA this afternoon. I’ve been rethinking some of Frank’s ideas after hearing a paper that name-dropped Frank at Visible Evidence, so I’m very much looking forward to the talk (and hopefully that will translate into yet another blog entry).

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Chain

Empty parking lots, hotel lobbies lit by skylights, shopping mall food courts, rundown and sometimes abandoned strip malls. These are the spaces inhabited and navigated by the two protagonists of Jem Cohen’s sublime new film, Chain. As this Cinema Scope interview notes, Chain is dominated by establishing shots of malls, shopping centers, hotel, airports, and other homogeneous public spaces we encounter on a daily basis:

Chain is a movie in establishing shots. Except that these shots serve the opposite purpose: obscuring and disorienting— dis-establishing, if you will.

In fact, at the end of the film, we learn that Chain was filmed in eleven states and five countries, making the film a commentary on the effect of globalization on human experience. However, like the Benjamin of the Arcades Project, Cohen avoids “looking down” on the stripmalling of the planet and instead remains content to observe, to witness how people inhabit this world, how they make their way through these spaces. These two protagonists, Tamiko (Miho Nikaido), a Japanese businesswoman representing her corporation in the US, and Amanda (Mira Billotte), a runaway drifting between endless, often under-the-table McJobs. Their stories interweave and often comment on each other in surprising ways.

I mention Benjamin here in part because Cohen cites The Arcades Project in the closing credits. He also mentions Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and more pertinent to my interests, he dedicates the film to Chris Marker (yeah, I mentioned this detail a few months ago). And the film very much reminded me of Marker’s Sans Soleil (perhaps my all-time favorite film if I was ever asked such a question), both in its narrative style and its treatment of the commodifcation of public space.

Like Sans Soleil, Chain proceeds largely through voice-over narration as the two solitary characters, Tamiko and Amanda, live in these spaces. Tamiko hs come to the US to propose converting an old steel mill into an amusement park (something oddly similar has recently happened in Atlanta), and she now awaits further guidance from the corporation. Meanwhile, the runaway Amanda drifts from job to job, living in derelict spaces and eating the remainders of lunches people carelessly leave behind in a mall food court. Later in the film, she finds a video camera, which she uses to create video letters to her half-sister. Of course, Amanda knows that she probably won’t send these “letters,” but she continues making them. Amanda’s video letters are just one of the nods to Marker’s film, which is entirely constructed of letters from a filmmaker read by an unseen narrator.

I found the filming of the video letters to be one of the film’s most beautiful and memorable motifs. Cast in the camera’s night-vision lighting (Amanda worries about being spotted and forced to move from her hiding place), Amanda develops a ghostly presence, one that is echoed by her lack of interaction with other people she watches in the mall. Amanda’s struggles to get by also recall Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” experiment in working-class living.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to make any larger claims about the film at this point, other than to say that I know many of the film’s images will haunt me for some time. Chain is an amazing achievement and deserves a much wider audience (for my DC readers, this means you should attend the screening of Chain which will take place on November 10 at the Hirshhorn Musuem).

Update July 2007: Chain has been playing this month on the Sundance Channel, and after watching again this week, I’ve been pleased by how well the film lives up to my positive memories of it.

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Shining

Check out this re-mixed preview for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Via KF and Dylan.

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